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Piles of Plutonium blow up big bomb fears New Scientist 17 Jan 98

WORLD stockpiles of civil plutonium will triple over the next 12 years, according to a secret report by a leading nuclear company in the US. Antinuclear campaigners claim that this level of plutonium-which could be used to make huge numbers of bombs-will seriously undermine international efforts to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons. NAC International, based in Atlanta, Georgia, which transports spent nuclear fuel, predicts that by 2010 the amount of fissile plutonium separated by the world's nine commercial reprocessing plants will have risen from 140 to 400 tonnes. NAC's report is being released this week by Greenpeace, which says it was leaked a copy by "industry sources". lt details when and where spent fuel from individual reactors is due to be reprocessed-information that the nuclear industry regards as commercially confidential. An atomic bomb can be made from less than 5 kilograms of fissile plutonium. Shaun Burnie, nuclear campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, is critical of electricity companies in Britain, France, Germany and Japan for allowing their spent fuel to be reprocessed into pluto nium. "This report reveals the dangerous game they are playing," he says. "There is no conceivable justification for producing such a huge amount of plutonium." Most of the world's reprocessing is carried out by British Nuclear Fuels at Sellafield in England, and by Cogema at La Hague and Marcoule in France. The leaked report, which is dated March 1995, estimates that by 2010, Sellafield will have separated 119 tonnes of plutonium, while the French plants will have separated a total of 208 tonnes. The remaining 73 tonnes, it says, will come from smaller reprocessing plants in Russia, Japan and India. At the same time, however, the report highlights the growing "uncertainties" facing the international reprocessing industry. The availability of cheap uranium, the alternative to plutonium for fuelling reactors, has made reprocessing uneconomical, and the operation is opposed by politicians and environmentalists. Rob Edwards

The World's Dustbin New Scientist 31 Jan 98

THOUSANDS of tonnes of American radioactive waste could be stored in Britain for ten years or more under a plan being promoted by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), a government-owned company. Astonished antinuclear groups promise "massive opposition" to the plan, which they claim would make Britain a dumping ground for foreign waste. BNFL has long been touting for international business for its new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) at Sellafield in Cumbria, which is designed to separate plutonium from fuel that has been burnt in nuclear reactors. The company has already signed contracts with operators in Japan, Germany and other European countries. The proposed deal with the US, however, is in a different league because it involves storage as well as reprocessing. The deal is revealed in a US government report, which discloses that BNFL is urging Congress to allow the US Department of Energy (DOE) to ship spent fuel to Seliafield. The US administration would pay $1 million a tonne for the service. The report, compiled last October by the Congressional Research Service, points out that American nuclear companies are running out of storage space for their spent fuel, which has been treated as waste since reprocessing was abandoned by President Carter in 1977. Plans for a national repository for 40,000 tonnes of waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were delayed until 2010 because of local opposition. BNFL plans to take spent fuel from reactors "with severe on-site storage problems", the report says. According to the DOE, stores at a third of America's 66 nuclear power stations will be full within two years, leaving 2300 tonnes of homeless spent fuel. By 2010, the figure will rise to over 10 000 tonnes. "If DOE storage and disposal facilities became available before the US spent fuel was reprocessed, the material could be retumed and the reprocessing contract terminated," the report says. "DOE would pay a termination fee covering BNFUs tran!;portation and storage costs." BNFL confirmed this week that it had been talking to the DOE and members of Congress about importing US spent fuel, but pointed out that the Senate had not agreed the legislative changes required. A company spokesman stressed that there was no contract in the pipeline, but added: "Using reprocessing facilities to provide interim storage and conditioning of spent fuel would be one solution to the storage problems currently being experienced by some utility companies in the US." Martin Forwood from the pressure group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment thinks that using Sellafield to store American waste would meet with fierce opposition. "BNFL is scraping the barrel in a desperate attempt to win business for its failing reprocess ing business." Rob Edwards

Pass the Plutonium Please Scientific American March 95

Getting rid of the tong-lived, radioactive by-products of nuclear power is a problem that has stalked the industry for its 40-year history-and the pressure wffl intensify this year. No nation has established a permanent disposal site for its most dangerous products: use d reactor fuel and the high-level waste created when it is reprocessed. Attempts to locate such sites have ignited public outcry ill SeNeral countries. And next month is unlkely to see controversy over another nuclear by-product, plutoniurn what promises to be a stormy conference will decide whether, or for how long, to extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Global trade in plutonium extracted from used fuel during reprocessing) makes it harder to enforce the treaty, reports the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C. Reprocessing whets appetites for plutonium in counties lacking nuclear weapons. It also increases the chances that a few kilograms of the metal, enough for a crude bomb, will find their way into the hands of terrorists. Putting aside issues of safety, the Nudear Control Institute argues that reprocessing spent fuel makes little economic sense. The fundamental problem for countries that reprocess is that plutonium is accumulating faster than it is being used. Nuclear power has not expanded as the industry expected it would, and the price of uranium, the primary nuclear tiel, is at a historic low. Thus, there is little industry demand for plutonium, which can be used in some reactors as a supplemental fuel. International commercial reprocessing means that high-level waste and spent fuel have to be shipped around the globe. France is steeling itself for protests when the state-owned reprocessing company COGEMA ships the first in a likely series of cargoes of waste from its plant in La Hague to Japan. The material, produced during the reprocessing of Japanese fuel, has been solidified into glass blocks. The first shipment was scheduled for February. The obvious route runs through the Panama Canal, but Caribbean nations have objected to having the waste enter their waters. The Philippines, wicch lies on an altemative loute, has also banned the cargo. The French government seems to have little stomach for a fight. 'It will in the future be very difficult to reprocess for other people,' comments Daniel Leroy of the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. He predicts that more countries will begin to reprocess their own waste. Indeed, Japan, which has the largest nuclear program in the world after the U.S., the U.K. and France, is building a second reprocessing plant. A drive toward nudear self-sufficiency could be bad news for companies such as COGEMA and for British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), which also reprocesses foreign fuel. BNFL is comniissioning a new plant at its site in Sellafield, despite doubts that have been raised about its health effects on the local population and its economic viability. The financial worries were underscored last December when two German utilities said they would break contracts with BNFL and pay the penalties. Russia may also be competing for COGEMA's and BNFL's business. The country is expanding reprocessing operations as a means of earning foreign capital. A plant at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, which has languished unfinished for several years, will apparently be completed, according to Russian press reports. South Korea is among the nations that might reprocess spent fuel there.

Opposition by environmentalists is mounting however. Russia allowed high-level waste from reprocessed Finnish fuel to remain in the country-taking the problem out of Finnish hands. Damon Moglen of Greenpeace International states that the Czech Republic wants to establish a similar arrangement. Russia's preferred method of disposal has been to pump high-level waste in bqliid form into the ground-but it has already started to leach out. Although the U.S. refrains from reprocessing, utilities have encountered legal problems over accumulated spent fuel. Most of it is in "pools" where it is allowed to cool for some years. Some of these are now full, and local jurisdictions are objecting to the huge casks that the utilities want to use for ongoing storage. The Department of Energy remains under congressional mandate to decide by the year 2001 whether Yucca Mountain in Nevada is suitable as a location for a permanent repository. If certified, the site could commence operations around 2010. Prospects for the facility, however, have had a recent setback. The DOE found water containing tritium from above-ground atomic tests-which therefore must be younger than 50 years- less than half a mile from the suggested site.


Reprocessing US plutonium warheads in Europe will make more plutonium than it can destroy - New Scientist 12 Apr 97

NUCLEAR companies in Britain and France are bidding to help convert 50 tonnes of plutonium from American bombs into fuel for reactors. If the plan goes ahead, a batch of at least 100 kilograms of plutonium will soon be shipped across the Atlantic. The scheme has been attacked by antinuclear activists on both sides of the Atlantic, who argue that bomb-grade plutonium in transit could leak or be stolen. They also claim that the process will make more plutonium than it can destroy. "It's a no-brainer," argues Ed Lyman of the Nuclear Control Institute, a lobby group in Washington DC. The British company British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) and its French competitor Cogema are part of a consortium that is bidding for a US government contract to convert plutonium from dismantled warheads into mixed plutonium and uranium oxide fuel, known as MOX, for use alongside standard uranium in American reactors. "The use of MOX can help to reduce the world's ex-military plutonium stockpile at the same time as generating electricity," says BNFL. The US Department of Energy, which has no commercial MOX fabrication plants, wants one built as soon as possible. The consortium, headed by the American company Commonwealth Edison, argues that using existing MOX plants in Europe to make test fuel would be the quickest way of successfully developing a plant in the US. At least four experimental fuel "assemblies" each containing 25 kilograms of plutonium could easily be made in Europe, it says. BNFL says some of the fuel could be manufactured in its pilot MOX plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, although the process may need modifying for plutonium from bombs. The plant has previously made MOX for Swiss and German customers out of plutonium from reactors. Cogema could manufacture the fuel in its Melox plant at Marcoule in the south of France. Meanwhile, BNFL is lobbying for permission to start up a large-scale commercial MOX fabrication plant at Sellafield. Britain's Environment Agency completed consultations on the plant earlier this week and is expected to give its verdict soon. Rob Edwards